A mum-of-two died due to a skin cancer she thought was gone.
Diane Cannon, 55, spoke of how her ‘bubbly’ niece Claire built a family, graduated with a first class psychology degree, and abandoned sunbeds after having a melanoma removed in her early 20s, leaving an “awful scar” in her back. But in 2012, Claire felt unwell, tired and run down. A doctor checked out hard, swollen glands under her arm, revealing the melanoma was back, more aggressive and spreading in the lymphatic system, a network that runs throughout the body.
It “was one of the most horrific times” for the family, who didn’t know the cancer could lay dormant, according to Diane, who was there when Claire died in a hospice. Skin cancer looms over the family, with Diane’s dad, brother and two sisters all having had it in various forms since 1995. Diane, who was only nine years older than Claire, found it particularly hard, saying: “You just lose hope, you really do. She was a young woman with a life ahead of her, and she’s gone.”
Diane, from South Liverpool, met the CEO of Melanoma UK, Gill Nuttall, after Claire’s second diagnosis, and she started working for the cancer charity in 2016. She runs a weekly support group for melanoma patients, and she’s starting another specifically for people with non-melanoma skin cancer, which is more common and can be less serious.
The 55-year-old was diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer in 2020 after her monthly close inspections of her skin revealed a growing lump on her nostril, which was removed with a precision surgery. The repeat encounters with cancer inspire Diane in her work. She said: “The things that we do for Melanoma UK, what I do just get that message out, is because I don’t want other people going through what we’re going through, because we’re still going through it. We will never get over what happened.”
Diane, who, like Claire, loved to tan in her youth, urged people to regularly check their skin for new or changing moles and lesions, to wear strong sunscreen all year round, and to avoid tanning beds, as the damage done by exposure to the sun will cause wrinkles even if it doesn’t cause cancer.
An estimated 21% of melanomas were missed in the first year of the pandemic, with a 68% drop in diagnoses between March and June that year, according to the latest figures from Melanoma UK. Almost 17,000 melanoma people are diagnosed each year, meaning thousands could be walking around not knowing they have it. This is a problem for other conditions, with an estimated 14,000 people missed out on diagnosis and treatment for prostate cancer during the pandemic, according to Prostate Cancer UK.
The pandemic meant Diane’s lesion was assessed through a closed window, and she had to push for a specialist referral for her non-melanoma skin cancer, of which there are roughly 156,000 cases each year, according to Cancer Research UK. Diane encouraged people to tell people if they’re worried about changes to their skin, or if they have a family history of skin cancer.
She said: “You must talk to your GP because they’re not going to know all your potential history. They won’t know whether your dad’s got skin cancer, or your niece has died of melanoma, or you brother has had a full facial reconstruction. They’ll only know what you tell them, so you need to be very, very clear on giving your GP a good, full update on your history.”
Cheshire and Merseyside Integrated Care System recently launched an initiative to streamline dermatology referrals using a phone app. The tech gives GPs access to advice and guidance from skin specialists who can review high-quality clinical images of moles and other skin lesions. Suspected cancer patients should then be seen by a specialist within two weeks.
May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, so Melanoma UK is running a competition to give 10 GPs a dermatascope and skin training. Patients at practices can nominate their doctors as part of the charity’s two-pronged approach to educating the public and improving specialist knowledge of skin cancer in primary care settings.
Diane said: “The big message every May, and throughout the summer months for us, is please go on the mole hunt, go and find the missing melanomas that we know have gone undiagnosed since covid. So we’re urging the public to go on a melanoma mole hunt and check your body.”